Barack Obama, Meet Johannes Althusius

A 17th century political theorist has much to teach the president.

Barack Obama professes to be a university-trained intellectual, so I would surmise that he must be reasonably familiar with the important work of Johannes Althusius (1557-1638), syndic of the German seaport town of Emden and author of the celebrated Politica (full title: Politica Methodice Digesta Exemplis Sacris & Profanis Illustrata—but never mind), published 45 years before the Treaty of Westphalia laid the groundwork for the territorial nation state. However, if the president is not aware of the volume and if his Latin is faulty, I would suggest he immediately get hold of Frederick Carney’s English translation The Politics of Johannes Althusius or of Thomas Hueglin’s Althusius on Community and Federalism.

Either should come as an eye-opener to a man whose understanding of pluralized government, negotiated compromise and sound economic principle as the foundation of political rule is so thin as to be practically nonexistent. He need not become, like Hueglin, an Althusiast, but a reading of Althusius would count as a “teachable moment” par excellence. It would make for an interesting meeting of minds, this encounter between an archetypal cool dude, hip as they come, and a bearded ancient in a ruffle, long deceased but undergoing a scholarly revival—at precisely the same time, ironically, that the president’s reputation is in free fall.

Rather than studying Saul Alinsky’s arguably treasonable Rules for Radicals, which as David Horowitz meticulously demonstates has markedly influenced his practice, the president of the United States would have been better served and better prepared for office had he examined the Politics Methodically Understood and Illustrated by Ecclesiastical and Secular Examples—assuming, of course, that he had valid intellectual credentials, as the president obviously believes he does. For what we now call “neoliberalism” or “social reconstruction,” an ideology that the president has palpably embraced, is a political philosophy that Althusius would have stubbornly opposed and, as we now say, “deconstructed.” The only point of contact between Althusius and Obama would involve the idea of “subsidiarity” (social sharing of resources) or, in Obama’s lexicon, “redistribution,” except that Althusian subsidiarity allows for departures from the fiduciary norm as circumstances arise: nisi communi voluntate aliud placeat (“unless something else pleases the common will”).

In the words of Thomas Hueglin, what Althusius wished to achieve was a “pluralized yet shared system of governance,” a political structure based on three central principles of federation. These three federal principles are:

(1)   pluralization, in the form of conferring authority on smaller, internal and to a certain degree autonomous political units, such as guilds and city-states, which Althusius called “consociations.” Today we would focus on the constitutional rights of the individual states in the Union.

(2)   consensuality, or in Althusius’ words, “what pertains to all must be approved by all,” which requires what in the current political dialect we call “bipartisanship.” (In Althusius’ time, it was more like “multipartisanship,” considering the large number of intermediary, preparliamentary communities.) Genuine bipartisanship eliminates the need for unwieldy plebiscites insofar as it subsumes the “will of the people” and is responsive to electoral sentiment.

(3)   fairness, in which all parties subject to a higher authority are consulted with a view to ensuring mutual trade-offs and optimal organization, so that no constituency is made to suffer unduly and its legitimate concerns are honestly addressed without, so far as possible, prejudicing the greater good. In the final analysis, sovereignty is understood as a function of the people and not of the ruler, whose decisions cannot be exercised arbitrarily and imposed without regard to the prevailing consensus. Today we interpret this desideratum as representational integrity and especially the unbiased administration of justice.

Obama has clearly violated these three fundamental axioms of communal solidarity, as they were set forth by Althusius. Whether he is refusing to back immigration reform and actually suing the state of Arizona for its efforts to control its porous borders (an assault upon the principle of pluralization), or forcing legislation through Congress without appropriate vetting (an abuse of the principle of consensuality) or allegedly steering the DOJ toward non-enforcement of voting rights laws and consequently toward a race-based dispensation of justice (a contravention of the principle of fairness)—or indeed, almost any of the policy decisions he has made since taking office—this is a president whose tenure has led to the splintering rather than the healing of the country. In so doing, he has debased the overarching community of the law, weakening the federal consensus and the natural civil order instead of, to quote Althusius again, agreeing with his constituents “to conserve and defend one and the same Republic” (consensurent in unum eandemque Rempubl. habendam & defendam).

For Althusius, the emphasis falls on the correspondence between divine, natural and civil law which, as Hueglin puts it, “denotes a constitutional framework of first principles that even bind whoever is the supreme ruler or legislator.” This sounds like an early trial run for the American Constitution that provides for the establishment of a republic, that is, which asserts the primacy of invariant law by which all must abide, citizen and governor alike, rather than acceding to the volatility of emotional whim, transient opinion or revolutionary ardor. But those who have cut their teeth on Saul Alinsky, whose rules instruct his disciples how to subvert the constitutional order with the intention of replacing it by a “socialist democracy,” aka a regime composed of a vanguard elite and a technocratic bureaucracy instituting a command economy, need to be set right—or cashiered—before they do irreparable harm.

I realize there is almost no chance of this happening. Nevertheless, it is somewhat consoling if wholly unrealistic to imagine that Obama might one day acquaint himself with the writings of Althusius rather than those of Alinsky, as an antidote to his intellectual vagrancy and sophomoric self-regard. For he is desperately in need of a refresher course in the art of governing. He obviously requires a sober mentor in the rigorous discipline of statecraft if he really wishes to achieve a modicum of unity among the disparities and contradictions of national life. Regrettably, whether through clumsiness or intent—probably both—this is a president who sows dissension among the electorate, gradually dissolving the constitutional epoxy that binds a people together.

American voters must eventually recognize, as many already have, that Barack Obama is a clear and present danger to the country. He is certainly adroit at advancing a partisan and aggressive socialist agenda, but as a president he is, quite simply, out of his depth, less qualified for the job than any of his precursors, including the lamentable Jimmy Carter. Lacking executive experience and historically illiterate, he is devoid of presidential gravitas, a slur frequently aimed at George Bush but far more appropriate to Obama. A clever stand-up comic, perhaps, the life of the party (and the Party), a policy thug masquerading as an elegant boulevardier, and a frivolous thinker who has little inclination for governing in the interests of the nation, he has failed to master the Rubicon Trail of international diplomacy and power politics just as he has flunked every domestic test to which he has been exposed.

The upshot of the matter is that, in the president’s worldview, an Alinsky must inevitably trump an Althusius, and the revisionist transformation of society take precedence over the temperate and levelheaded management of a federal republic. It would be wrong, however, to assume that Obama is an anomaly. The personality type is familiar to us as the classic mix of the demagogic and the self-indulgent, the reigning features of the imperial sensibility. Ultimately, Obama is not interested in governing but in ruling, that is, when he is not engaged in having fun or charming an audience. Dividing his time between Saul Alinsky and Jay Leno, he has neither the patience for the kind of cognitive fare represented by a serious and farsighted political thinker like Johannes Althusius nor the appetite for the strenuous canons of probative governance. As Althusius might have said, caveat suffragator.